Orientalism and the Failure of British Policy in the Middle East: The Case of Aden


  • A shorter French-language version of this article will be published in a forthcoming special edition of Maghreb-Machrek.


Historical writing on the end of the British empire has been dominated by two traditions: diplomatic history and post-colonial theory. The critique of Orientalism provided by Edward Said has generated a markedly different approach from the older tradition of diplomatic history and there are theoretical obstacles to any reconciliation. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify historiographical precedents for applying some Orientalist ideas to diplomatic source material in the study of the end of the British empire. One territory to which this approach has not been applied is Britain's only formal colony in the Middle East, Aden. The last twenty years of British rule in Aden provide evidence of intelligence being interpreted in a way which underestimated the potency of local agents and exaggerated the influence of external manipulation. There is also corroboration for the notion that British military strategy at the end of empire was characterized by a punitive policy designed to discipline the subject population. Lastly, British political strategy was predicated on a series of stereotypes about the role of leadership in Arab society and the overestimation of the effectiveness of the local rulers as agents of British influence. This evidence suggests that a study of the diplomatic record can substantiate many of the propositions presented in Said's original work.